Monday, November 11, 2002

The Canadian government's occasionally impolitic positions with respect to the war on terrorism, to which I've alluded previously, and which are the subject of a piece by Jonah Goldberg in the National Review, may be somewhat puzzling to Americans. I will try to explain (without excusing) them; the explanation may also provide useful insight into some other Western countries' strangely unsupportive attitude towards American efforts against terrorism.

The first thing that Americans should understand about Canadian politics is that Canadians are, by and large, a politically uncommitted bunch. Only a tiny fraction of the population belongs to a political party, and most of the rest are happy to vote for whichever party seems to be addressing the pocketbook issues of the day (or to be winning handily enough to be worth currying favor with, in the hopes of receiving a greater share of federal pork-barrel spending after the election). To the extent that there is any mass partisanship in federal politics, it is largely a matter of inter-regional conflict, with parties increasingly representing their regional power bases. Canadian foreign policy is simply not on the political radar screen, as Canadian voters understand perfectly well their country's utter insignificance in the geopolitical arena.

As a result, Canadian governments target their foreign policy largely at the small domestic constituency that actually cares about it. Naturally, this group disproportionately inhabits the academic and media worlds, where it clings, like its American and European counterparts, to a familiar breed of woolly-minded leftish anti-Americanism with the dogmatic uniformity typical of small, concentrated intellectual groups. Canadian journalists and academics are also somewhat self-selected for anti-Americanism, since the most successful among them usually have the option of enhancing their prestige and paychecks south of the border--an option many of them exercise, unless they are strongly disinclined to do so--and the less successful thus have ample cause for "sour grapes" resentment of an American cultural and intellectual pre-eminence that excludes them.

There is also a strain of anti-Americanism that runs through most segments of Canadian society, and that has little to justify it beyond common "us vs. them" home-team-rooting. It's not particularly intense or virulent, though, and it's counterbalanced by Canadians' general sense of neighborly good feeling towards folks south of the border. (A large fraction, after all, have friends or relatives in the US, visit often, and are deeply immersed in popular culture. Pernicious stereotypes about American national characteristics are hard to sustain under those conditions; one has to live among Americans for years, as I have, to develop them.) But on issues that don't really matter (and let's face it: what Canadian politicians have to say about world affairs almost never really matters), playing to anti-American peevishness rarely causes a politician lasting damage.

On matters of substance--i.e., action--though, I believe that a solid majority of Canadians invariably stand firmly with their American allies. They helped house stranded American travelers on September 11th, when American flights were grounded; their soldiers joined the US in the Afghanistan campaign; and they continue to cooperate with their neighbors on a variety of continent-wide security matters. The longest undefended border in the world will no doubt remain undefended--and friendly--for a long time to come.

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